Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A Very Special Bond

If you have read this blog for a while now, you might remember me mentioning the two year course in Buddhist studies that I have been doing. Last week Term 3 for 2005 started up, roughly marking the half way mark of the course. I was sitting in the class last night, as we listened to teachings, asked questions and laughed along with each other, and it struck me just how close I have come to feel towards this group of people.

As the course is done in a modular format, some of the students have come and gone depending on the module, but the majority of the students in my current class have been doing the course for a while now. Some of the students I have gotten to know really well, and some I don't know so well at all, but even if we aren't 'friends' as such I feel a bond with all of them. A sense of community. We are all asking the big questions of ourselves, opening ourselves up to new ideas and ways of seeing, and frequently discussing our 'inner lives' in class.

When people ask me how I am, or how things are going, I get a sense of real interest not just a polite piece of chit-chat. Likewise I have found myself feeling a genuine concern for some of my fellow students, and feeling honest joy when they have had whatever success has come their way.

In Buddhism we talk about 'The Three Jewels' of Buddhism; The Buddha (specifically our own inner buddha nature, or potential for elightenment), The Dharma (the teachings) and The Sangha (the community of 'spriritual friends'; monks, nuns, teachers & fellow students). All are of equal importance.

I guess what I have discovered on an emotional level, is just how true this is and how much having a community of 'spiritual friends' would become important to me.


Bodhi said...

Ananda: "Lord, I've been thinking; spiritual friendship is at least half of the spiritual life!"
Buddha: "Say not so, Ananda, say not so. Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life!"

I very much relate to your post here Andrew, and it reminded me of the Buddha's quite well known words above. In my own life too there is indeed a great appreciation for the 'very special bond' that I have formed with a number of groups over the years. It has made me come to realise the wisdom in the Buddha's words and the importance of spiritual friendship, or kalyana mitrata [from kalyana meaning wholesome, beautiful or noble, and mitrata meaning friendship].

My first experience of kalyana mitrata was in my late teens when at the urging of a good friend I finally and somewhat reluctantly agreed to attend a Catholic Youth Group with him. And although I treated it more as an opportunity to make friends and have a little fun than any genuine spiritual interest, what immediately struck me was how truly supportive and accepting the group was. For a troubled introverted teen who was dealing with issues of sexuality and the beginnings of addiction, they were indeed to save me in many ways. Just maybe not in the ways they expected.

Later, when I came into Alcoholics Anonymous I was to find a fellowship of men and women who had all been through similiar circumstances to myself. They understood me in ways no others, no matter how well meaning or intentioned, could ever possibly understand. Working a path of spiritual practise through the 12-step program, they also inspired me through their own transformations to face my own demons and grow and develop with them. True spiritual warriors in many respects, I found them a group of people who, allbeit through necessity, practised what they preached. Living examples of the principles and spiritual practises by which the program taught them to live.

Many of my recovery friends indeed remind me of those words in the Dhammapada: "Though one should conquer in battle thousands upon thousands of men, yet he who conquers himself is truly the greatest in battle."

Your sharing of how when people ask you how you are, and you get a sense its a genuine concern rather than polite chit-chat, very much reminds me of recovery. Often when I answered "fine" to the question "how are you?", I would be met with an intent gaze and genuine concern and compassionate reply would come back, "yes, yes, but how are you REALLY?". And then there is the common recovery joke of what fine means: freaked-out, insecure, negative and emotional". First time I heard that in very early recovery I initially laughed (an extreme rarity at the time), and then suddenly began to cry. Like a long held fascade had been smashed, and an emotional dam finally broke forth. The person who said it to me just hugged me, and kept telling me I was in the right place and all would be OK.

They were right.

Later of course I was to finally find my Sangha in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. A community of men and women who were committed to the Buddha's path of practise. In the order members themselves, I was inspired by individuals who made going for refuge, to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the central focus for their lives.

Later, in my fellow men who are also with me in the ordination process, I found yet another group who inspired and challanged me in whole news ways. In our regular get togethers, we have come to know each other extremely well. It will indeed be both a priviledge and a joy to have such a fine group of men join me in the next chapter of my spiritual life.

In many ways I see the term of Sangha as much wider than the somewhat traditional concept of the ordained Buddhist community, or even just the wider Buddhist spiritual community as a whole. For me, all those groups and peoples along the journey thus far who have been one form or another of kalyana mitrata, or spiritual friendship, have formed the very fabric of the word Sangha for me.

Each and every one.

I will finish with some of my favourite words from part of the Tiratana Vandana, a Salutation to the Three Jewels mantra that we often chant at my Buddhist centre (and I often chant too before my own daily meditation practise).

"Ye ca Sangha atita ca
Ye ca Sangha anagata
Paccuppanna ca ye Sangha
Aham vandami sabbada
N'atthi me saranam annam
Sangho me saranam varam
Etena saccavajjena
Hotu me jayamangalam"

[To all the Fellowships that were,
To all the Fellowships to be,
To all the Fellowships that are,
My worship flows unceasingly.
No refuge but the Fellowship,
Refuge supreme, is there for me.
Oh by the virtue of this truth,
May grace abound, and victory!]

Bodhi :-)
Sydney, Australia

The Other Andrew said...

Thanks for such a beautiful comment, it certainly added to my own thoughts and made my post that much richer. I think fellowship, to use the common Christian term, is important - especially when you are undertaking any sort of moral/ethical/spiritual voyage of discovery. Whether that is AA, Buddhism, or whatever path it takes. That support becomes very important.

(BTW - I love the AA summation of what the response 'fine' means, very insightfull!)

Interestingly, the current module of my Discovering Buddhism course is "Refuge In The Three Jewels" and only last night we were discussing Ananda, and concepts of 'Sangha' in that context. Fascinating stuff!